Comic book writer Rucka releases latest novel
A GENTLEMAN'S GAME: A Queen & Country Novel
By Greg Rucka
Bantam: New York, 335 pages, $24, hardcover.
October 14, 2004
By Franklin Harris
Greg Rucka is best known nowadays as a writer of comic books, having chronicled the adventures of superheroes like Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman and Wolverine, as well as of his own characters in the Eisner Award-winning spy series, "Queen & Country," published by Oni Press. But before he turned to four-color heroics, he was a novelist whose books included "Finder," "Keeper" and "Smoker," all featuring the character Atticus Kodiak.
Now Rucka has released a new novel, this time starring his "Queen & Country" characters.
"A Gentleman's Game" opens with coordinated Islamic terrorist attacks on the London Underground, a small-scale 9/11 that kills more than 370 people. When the prime minister orders a response, the task falls to the Secret Intelligence Service (a.k.a. MI6), specifically Tara Chase, recently promoted to Minder One, the principal field operative of the Special Operations division.
Chase is dispatched to Yemen with orders to assassinate Dr. Faud bin Abdullah al-Shimmari, the spiritual and ideological leader of the breakaway terrorist organization responsible for the attacks. A complication arises, however, in the person of Salih bin Muhammad bin Sultan, one of the almost 7,000 princes of the Saudi royal family, who appears in the wrong place at the wrong time and becomes "collateral damage."
Soon, Chase becomes a sacrificial lamb on the altar of international politics, as the British government seeks to turn her over to the Saudis in exchange for the Saudis' taking action against a known terrorist training camp within Saudi borders. And her only way out is to go on the run from her own government and destroy the camp herself, which, by all accounts, is a suicide mission.
Rucka delivers a gripping, fast-paced tale, deftly maneuvering his characters like pieces on a chessboard. Reading "A Gentleman's Game," I more than once thought of a line from Patrick McGoohan's allegoric spy series, "The Prisoner": "We're all pawns."
Careful readers, however, may spot other influences. Rucka himself credits the British Cold War spy series "The Sandbaggers" as his primary inspiration, and the novel's breakneck pace and shifting geography, from London to Yemen to Israel to Egypt, is not unlike the ABC spy series "Alias."
The entire cast of Rucka's "Queen & Country" comic books is here, from Chase's gruff boss, Paul Crocker, to Crocker's CIA contact, Angela Cheng, to retired Minder One Tom Wallace, who becomes Chase's last resort when she goes rogue. But Rucka fills in all of the relevant backstory, so one need not have read any of the comics to be swept up in the novel.
The shadowy politics of "A Gentleman's Game" are even more engrossing than then spy games, as Crocker tries to protect Chase from his superiors, cuts deals with the CIA and the Mossad and fights a perpetual territorial war with MI5, the British domestic intelligence service, also known as The Box.
Rucka also takes readers into the mind of a terrorist, Sinan bin al-Baari, a British national and convert to an extreme form of Wahabbist Islam, who is drawn into the SIS cat-and-mouse game when he is assigned to guard Prince Salih.
We see Sinan as evil, but he is never a caricature, just as Chase is the hero but not without her flaws, mostly of the self-destructive variety.
It's easy to relate to Chase. She drinks too much, smokes too much and uses men and tosses them away. Although Rucka probably won't appreciate the comparison, Chase isn't too far removed in some ways from James Bond, only she suffers from the guilt and hangovers that never troubled Ian Fleming's larger-than-life spy. And it's that element of realism, combined with the novel's ripped-from-the-headlines plot, which makes all the difference.
(This review appeared originally in the Sunday, Oct. 10, 2004 edition of THE DECATUR (Ala.) DAILY.)